- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

The death last month of the comedy writer, producer and, for a time, director John Hughes was a shocker, at once untimely and eerie. Mr. Hughes, 59, suffered a heart attack while strolling on West 55th Street in Manhattan, the neighborhood that once was home of 20th Century-Fox’s corporate headquarters. Fox became the fortunate distributor of Mr. Hughes most successful comic brainstorm, “Home Alone,” the Christmas movie blockbuster of 1990.

“Sixteen Candles,” which introduced Mr. Hughes as a writer-director-producer, was not a runaway hit. According to the filmmaker himself, encountered at a press junket in 1993, the movie “didn’t open as big as everybody thought” in the aftermath of its eventual emergence as a generational delight and touchstone. He believed the success came when “Sixteen Candles” reached the relatively new home video market several months after its theatrical run.

Home video united the plurality drawn to Molly Ringwald as the irresistibly lovelorn and underdog protagonist, Samantha Baker, a high school sophomore whose family forgets her 16th birthday, a slight that coincides with a seemingly futile crush on a dreamboat senior named Jake Ryan.

Mr. Hughes was responsible for popular comedies that were better sustained than “Sixteen Candles,” which also neglects Samantha during the final reel while consorting with other characters. My favorite among the distinctive Hughes comedies, which began to add up in 1983 when his scripts for “Mr. Mom” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” reached the screen, is likely to remain “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” His initial holiday brainstorm, it appeared a year before “Home Alone.”

Many of the appreciations that appeared after his death emphasized John Hughes as a specialist in teenage romantic farce and heartache, but during the 1980s and ‘90s he wrote or produced three times as many movies about family life in general. Moreover, he created splendid middle-aged clowns in contrasting family men: Chevy Chase as the respectable, big-hearted, disaster-prone Clark Griswold and Randy Quaid as his genial, oblivious tormentor, Cousin Eddie, a freeloading relative by marriage.

The Griswold connection helped bring Mr. Hughes to the attention of Hollywood. While working as an advertising copywriter and freelance writer in his native Chicago in the 1970s, he became one of the most clever and reliable of the contributors to National Lampoon in its heyday. A diabolically funny, deadpan fable of family calamity and solidarity, “Vacation ‘58,” became the source for “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” adapted by Mr. Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis. The movie retained much of the story’s mock-heroic appeal: an adolescent son’s admiring account of his dad’s crazed persistence and resourcefulness during a maddening holiday trip from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Six years later, Mr. Hughes improved on the pretext by leaving Clark Griswold at home but inventing Christmas screw-ups and reversals of fortune to test his boundless capacity for absurdity and generosity.

Despite this preference, its difficult to begrudge the “Sixteen Candles” contingent its partiality, well founded in many respects. Never more so than in the fleeting courtship moves aimed at Miss Ringwald’s Samantha by a brash freshman named Ted, a twerp brilliantly embodied by Anthony Michael Hall. Both leading lady and kid stalker were actually 16 at the time, a rarity in Hollywood. Miss Ringwald had two earlier movies to her credit, including Paul Mazursky’s “Tempest,” in which she played a fanciful update of Shakespeare’s Miranda. Mr. Hall came closer to being a Hughes “discovery” and alter ego, having played Chevy Chase’s loyal son in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

The rapport of these teens at the outset seemed to portend a sustainable partnership. That didn’t happen, although Mr. Hughes cast them promptly in “The Breakfast Club,” a serio-comic gambit that aspired to dignify a day of high-school detention as a turning point in five young lives. The absence of a Ringwald-Hall “collection” makes their match in “Sixteen Candles” even more of a precious souvenir.

Samantha’s awful day comes near the end of her sophomore year. She attends a high school dance, anticipated in a funny whopper to her family a bit earlier: “It’s a very important dance. We’re being graded on it.” Pestered anew by Ted, who began annoying her on the school bus earlier in the day, she takes refuge in the auto shop. Hard to shake, he finds her there.

Seated in the shell of a car that’s half-assembled, terminating at the front seat, an admirably concrete metaphor for a rudimentary acquaintance, Samantha and Ted begin to confide in each other. Six and a half minutes later, they’ve sealed a funny, mutually useful bond and the filmmakers have achieved one of the most satisfying comic interludes in contemporary film history.

Ted sort of breaks the ice with a ridiculous confession, “I’ve never bagged a babe,” probably the most succinct example of the Hughes teenage idiom of the period. He also gets custody of the famous kicker, “Can I borrow your underpants for ten minutes?” But Miss Ringwald is not left without verbal and pantomimic ammo to call her own. Samantha’s avuncular reassurance might benefit not only callow Ted but many another overreacher: “A lot can happen in a year. You could come back next fall as a completely normal person.” The movie also preserves Miss Ringwald’s single most eloquent gesture: the impatient “out with it” hand rotation that prompts Ted to spill what’s on his mind, just before he sheepishly requests the loan of her panties.

At the time, comedies about high school kids had taken a turn for the profane, but the smartest examples, “Risky Business” in 1983 and “Sixteen Candles” a year later, demonstrated a compensatory flair for reconciling provocation with affectionate and protective tendencies. Despite a quantum leap in slapstick exaggeration and obscene banter, a recent style-setter in teen farce, “Superbad,” still considered it wise to fall back on sweet-natured attributes when resolving a lewd, madcap plot. It appears that even when anything goes, a measure of restraint typical of the previous generation comes in handy. The way John Hughes looked out for high school misfits and outcasts remains an astute and profitable practice.

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